Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

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Zack Anderson, the Statutory Rape Exception?

***TRIGGER WARNING**** The following may or may not trigger victims of sexual violence. The news story that follows is not meant to support sexual offenders as we know that, but to generate a conversation about the laws surrounding particular incidents involving sex.

zackandersonThis is Zack Anderson, a 19-year-old from Elkhart, Indiana who was recently placed on the Sex Offender Registry in Indiana and Michigan. Problem is, Anderson doesn’t belong on the sex offender list.

Anderson landed on this list after an encounter with a young woman he met on the dating app “Hot or Not.” The girl lived just across the state line in Michigan and posed as a 17-year-old. Anderson and the girl met and had consensual sex but afterwards it was discovered that the girl was 14-years-old which means that Anderson, unbeknownst to him in the moment, committed statutory rape. (Statutory rape laws in Michigan state that, “Third-degree criminal sexual conduct is sexual penetration with someone between age 13 and 16.” Statutory rape laws for Indiana state that, “Sexual misconduct with a minor if a person at least age 18 engages in sexual intercourse with a child between ages 14 and 16.”)

Now Anderson faces a 90-day jail sentence, five years probation and placed on both Indiana and Michigan’s sex offender registry for the next 25 years. The girl and her parents attended his court date and declared that he shouldn’t be punished for her wrongdoing but the law remains. To top it off, the judge expressed disdain for the fact that Anderson used the Internet to meet girls saying, “That seems to be part of our culture now. “Meet, have sex, hook up, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.” Those of us who use the Internet to connect, platonic and romantically, know that there is more than an excuse, there is a reason for this method of communication and meeting, but that is neither here nor there at the moment and the judge probably could have withheld his opinion on that. The real issue at hand is what to do in a statutory rape case when your victim lies and she–or he–comes forward to confess that lie and there is evidence of that lie–in this case maybe there is evidence through archived webpages of her dating profile that show her misrepresenting herself and her age.

Lying about one’s age on a dating app is an occurrence as old as time. So what are the consequences for lying about one’s age in a situation that could do harm and damage to the other person’s life? (And really, though Anderson is the only one being explicitly punished, I’m willing to bet that the girl may endure another kind of punishment if only through guilt.)

Nevertheless, because of this young woman’s lie Anderson’s life will never be the same. He has the jail sentence, the probation, the sex offender registry, and he can’t live or go near his parent’s house because he has a 15-year-old brother all because of a lie. I’ve been wracking my brain to see how this might be justified but I just don’t see it. Even as I write this I’m thinking, “But what if this is all I setup? What if his parents paid hers to come forward and state that she lied?” On one hand I want to believe this young man’s account because I want to believe that not every young man is a factory of raging hormones looking for a release by any means necessary–a nod to a Camille Paglia. On the other hand I’m fully aware that with our culture, a culture where rape culture is persistent and men get away with all manner of evil while we either silence or shame the women involved, the alternative storyline that I’ve conjured in my mind could also be possible. But I want to look at this case considering the evidence we have before us which is, literally, the testimony of Anderson and the girl’s admission and apology.

Say we take Anderson’s account at face value as well as the confession of the girl.

Say all of it is true.

Should the statutory rape law be upheld? Why?

Should there be an exception to the law if the victim confesses to deceitful behavior?

Should the victim be punished? Why? How? 

I’m very curious to hear perspectives across the board.

In a few days I’d like to follow-up on a few other issues that I can’t yet cover in this post which will include results from the questions above as well as the poll attached and why I am actually against the sex offender list in general. Until then, I look forward to sharing dialogue with people on the present case.

Defending “Descent”: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, SPOILER ALERT: The conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may want look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, TRIGGER ALERT: This post touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience with this form of violence. I encourage you–if you can–to stay and read and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Three, this post was from a year and a half ago but my perspective on the matter still remains, for the most part. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.”

My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But, lest I get too far away from my original point, I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query.

So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?

Previously published on my mixed topic blog, The Intellectual Wallflower.

The Problem with Date Rape Drug Detecting Nail Polish and Other Anti-Rape Products

purple-spill-banRecently a few North Carolina State University students invented a nail polish that detects when a date rape drug has been slipped into a woman’s drink. In order to activate this polish a woman has to stir the drink with her finger and if one of the drugs is in her drink, then the polish will change colors. That’s all good and well but a bit cumbersome to what I thought such a polish would do–in my mind I was thinking such a polish would detect chemical changes in the body and send a signal to the nailbed and from there change colors. Clearly I’m not a scientist. Nevertheless my problem is less with method and more with the creation of yet another product of this kind. It’s a treatment and not a cure to rape. A band-aid, if you will, covering a bigger issue. The reality is we don’t need another thing to protect women from being raped. Not another condom with teeth, not chastity belt underwear, not pepper spray, not another thing before we teach and train men not to rape women. Camille Paglia articulates it well when she says, “Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded aways from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness.”

Paglia’s project in the essay “Rape and the Modern Sex War,” is to unmuddy the waters that feminism has made murky with blame and shame. Those feminists who’d suggest that those claiming women ought to be more responsible and careful are blaming women for rape. Paglia believes that women must take responsibility for their actions and she states that this is not “blaming the victim” but encouraging women to use common sense. She suggests that if a woman goes to a frat party with her girlfriends, she needs to leave with those girlfriends and that women shouldn’t go up to the room of a guy they don’t know or even a guy they know, particularly if they’ve had something to drink. These are common sense tips to help women protect themselves in situations that are ripe for sexual violence, but, as we all know, a woman protecting herself goes only so far before a man overcomes her. Thus the solution is not always in arming a woman to the tooth with anti-rape weapons, but in changing the perspective of men. I’d like to argue that Paglia knows there are limitations to common sense in rape culture when she says,

“Men must do or risk something to be men. Men become masculine only when other men say they are. Having sex with a woman is one way a boy becomes a man. College men are at their hormonal peak. They have just left their mothers and are questing for their male identity. In groups, they are dangerous.”

We’ve seen this played out on college campuses among groups of men–fraternity or not. Young men’s masculinity and bravado is measured by their conquests, not their lack thereof. I’ve seen it play out on MTV’s “Virgin Territory” where, if there is one male virgin in a group of male non-virgins, the non-virgins will dominate the group discussions and dynamic and encourage the virgin to do what he must in order to have sex with the young lady he is most interested in. The virgin is seen as immature and inexperienced and only when he finally has sex with a girl is he granted full access into the social circle because now he understands the symbolic world his peers operate in. This is all to Paglia’s point about how men are socialized and how group dynamics might drive a man. All of this pressure to perform may weigh a man down psychologically. Nevertheless, not to sound like I am giving men the benefit of the doubt or taking pity upon them because their male relationships can put a lot of pressure on them, I think it is important that we educate, refine, and ethically persuade men against aggressive and sexually violent behavior against women from an early age.

Educating them to understand that the moment a woman says no, regardless of how many blurred lines they perceive in that no, that no is no. Straight up. Teaching them that they are not entitled to a sexual encounter with a woman just because she got drunk with them, is wearing a short skirt, or she flirted with them. Better boundaries must be erected in how men interact with women in social situations where things can get easily misconstrued and this is not all about the woman using common sense, it is also about the man using self-control. (And dare I say, though this is a totally different situation, the same goes for men in the church who balk and complain that women with tight clothing or high hemlines are distracting and tempting them. We are not the ones who need to be controlled, it is the men who must control themselves, their desires, and their wild imaginations.)

Men must be refined to understand that the world doesn’t rotate on the axis of sex and getting it by any means necessary. Sex that is consensual between two adults is good sex. Sex within a loving, monogamous relationship is better. Sex within marriage is best. (And I know I’m getting into territory that is a hot topic so I’m going to leave that there.) All of this to say that all of the striving for sex outside of the parameter of consent is the worst sex you will have in your life. So this refining has to do with fine-tuning understandings of sex and relationships between men and women.

Much of what was said above can also be included in an ethical persuasion to men against sexual violence. Respecting a woman’s “No,” establishing behavioral boundaries in social situations, controlling one’s self for the good of the other, refining  understandings of sex, and right and good places to have it contextually speaking. But one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is respecting the dignity of all persons. Dignity establishes that every person has the intrinsic right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. Every person, man or woman, has the intrinsic right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. To promote this teaching among men means they must see women as valuable beings sharing a common humanity, not as objects of refuse for pleasure. To take this one step further, I dare to insert some Kantian ethics here and say that the categorical imperative should be considered here too. Of the categorical imperative Kant says, “Act only according to that rule whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Another way of understanding the categorical imperative is do unto to others as you would have them do unto you, this is universal law. Therefore, to put it quite bluntly, do not sexually force yourself upon someone unless you are fully prepared for the same to happen to you. I acknowledge that saying this is difficult and possibly problematic because there are some men out there who are more than ready to rape and be raped because they are that depraved. But I am addressing a group more in control of their mental faculties and able to learn and re-learn some of the things that they have been taught about sex.

Indeed I could go on and on about this but other things await me in this day. Suffice to say that I can’t celebrate the creation of a date rape drug detecting nail polish before some real work is done to stop the men who rape in the first place. I’m tired of the burden being on women to protect themselves when some men are the ones who must work on themselves. Nail polish, underwear, and sharp condoms don’t help the underlying issue involved in sexual violence and that’s where we need to start focusing.